Christmas ‘Grotto’ Brings Graduates and Students Together For Festive Work Experience

A Cleveland College of Art and Design (CCAD) graduate, who now runs a successful business producing props and scenery for TV, film and stage clients around the country, has provided a festive and fun work experience for the current and next generation of prop makers and designers.

37-year-old Billy Cessford, who graduated from the specialist art and design college in 2012 with a first class degree in Entertainment Design Crafts (now Production Design for Stage and Screen), was commissioned to build an alternative to ‘Santa’s Grotto’ for a large shopping centre. The concept was developed by Leeds and London marketing agency Bewonder*, who worked with Newcastle experiential marketing agency Independent Events to brief Billy.

Santa’s ‘coal grotto’ in progress with Greg Lonsdale

The scenic artist from Redcar was given a brief to bring the initial design to life and produce a home for Santa for Churchill Square Shopping Centre in Brighton through his company BCFX. The design theme was a ‘Coal Hearted Christmas’, bucking the traditional grotto set and instead creating a dark and glittery mine where young children will have to ‘earn their visit with Santa with some hard graft, finding hidden gold and enjoying fun and stories on an interactive venture from Santa’s elves along the way’.

Taking place at the CCAD’s Bus Shed sound and production stage facility in Hartlepool, the large-scale set was created from scratch using polystyrene blocks which were carved to create the cave-like interior of a mine.

Assisting on the project to help build up their portfolios were former CCAD students Greg Lonsdale and Mel Gettings, who studied production design and graduated this summer from the leading arts school.

Santa’s ‘coal grotto’ in progress with Mel Gettings

21-year-old Greg, from Fairfield in Stockton, and Mel Gettings, 35 from Hartlepool, set up as freelance designers and have enjoyed working with Billy on the Santa set from the beginning, alongside taking up numerous opportunities for design work in the north east.

Greg said: “Working with Billy has been fantastic and helped me to build up my industry experience. Studying at CCAD and the production design degree has prepared me well to meet the pressures of a real client and job such as the Santa set, with deadlines and an exact brief to meet, so it has been very useful and great for my freelance business.

Since graduation, Greg has organised an art exhibition at the Hope and Union bar in Stockton, which then lead to the creation of a project for a mural in the gentleman’s washing facilities at the popular pub.

Production design first year students on set

He has also worked on the short film ‘Stine’ with Newcastle TV film and video production company Candle and Bell in Newcastle, where he built a set at the Bus Shed facility and dressed it on location in Gateshead for filming.

CCAD alumnus Mel Gettings, who is also building a career as a freelance set designer as well as volunteering for local theatre group the Billingham Players on their set painting, was delighted to take up the opportunity of developing her professional portfolio with Billy.

She said: “I love to keep my hand in with work of this nature and build on my industry links. It was hard work but really good and Greg and I were involved from the start so we were able to help Billy plan the set in terms of how it would look. We began carving up the polystyrene blocks, followed by the painting, helped by the first year students, which was great as it was a big job.

“We achieved a lot in a short space of time and it was good to see an empty space turned into a great big ‘alternative’ grotto. It’s amazing what you can do and we have really pulled it together with the help of the students.”

First year production design student Tyler McKeown enjoyed working on the festive project

Assisting Billy were the level four students from the BA (Hons) Production Design for Stage and Screen (PDSS) programme, which provided a great opportunity to work on a large scale set for a real client and a real project.

The finished grotto ready to transport

20-year-old Tyler McKeown from Shepton Mallet in Somerset, who lives in Hartlepool, said: “It was great to be involved in this project, helping move the set pieces around into a suitable home for Santa and painting them dark and glittery, really good fun. Billy taught us about hotwire sculpting process to get the shapes and it has been a great learning experience. This is why I came to CCAD; the only place I have seen where you can get to work on real live projects on your first couple of months in.”

Lydia Maclure, 18 from Marton in Middlesbrough, added: “It was a good experience and we all really enjoyed it despite the cold! It was great to learn from Billy and the graduates, as well as gaining the sculpting and painting skills and it will be great to see the Santa home all set up and ready for the young children.”

Billy’s business has seen him produce props for leading wax museum Madame Tussauds and set for the Paralympic opening ceremony. Prior to achieving a degree, he studied an access to higher education course as a mature student at CCAD’s Green Lane campus.

The coal ‘grotto’ at the shopping centre

Billy said: “When I was given the challenge of bringing this idea to life – looking at the sketches – I thought I can’t imagine how this will look when built, and producing it on a tight timescale of three weeks. I’m so glad I took on the project, as the ‘grotto’ looked fantastic, and I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of Mel and Greg.

Santa in his home at Churchill Square Shopping Centre

“It was also great for the students to assist with applying the texture and paint and learn new techniques. They were also able to see how a commercial project is put together in terms of business planning.  When I was a student I had opportunities just like this, and that inspired me to be where I am now.

“When I graduated I had the option to go off to London to carry on my career and I chose to stay in Redcar and create BC-FX. Now projects are growing year on year and I am excited to have something even bigger and magical in the pipeline for 2018. I am already talking about grottos for next year and would love to bring something unique closer to home and really show what we have to offer.”

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